Between trips to Greenland and Iceland, National Geographic photographer, Keith Ladzinski, spoke to us via Skype from Colorado about his adventurous life.
Be prepared to be inspired by his path to becoming an award-winning photographer and filmmaker, his addiction to being outdoors, his love of rock climbing and wildlife, and so much more.
Here is Keith hanging on location for a photo shoot at the Great Getu Arch in China, 2014 | Photo Credit: Cedar Wright | Image Source
With photos featured in numerous magazines and a lengthy list of international awards, it is no wonder that Keith is one of the most sought after adventure photographers. And, with almost 1 million Instagram followers, make sure to check out Keith’s Instagram for his fantastic, awe-inspiring photographs – his shots will inspire you to travel!
After a lot of preparation and then a very short window of time, Keith captured this spectacular photo of the Solar Eclipse (Aug 21st, 2017) at Jackson Hole, Wyoming | Image Source
Born in New York and raised in Colorado, today Keith calls the rock-climbing-and-hiking city of Boulder home. He recalls a childhood where he, along with his two siblings, posed for endless photographs taken by their father. At the time, Keith had no interest in photography. It wasn’t until a day in 1995, while skateboarding, that he began his journey to becoming a photographer.
That day, his artistic brother brought a camera along to the skate park and showed Keith how to shoot photos. The experience left a strong impression and inspired Keith, three months later, to use his income tax return from a summer job – around $300 – to buy his first camera from a pawn shop.
ub-cool: You’re known for your amazing natural history and extreme sports photographs and film. But, back in your early days, what subject matter did you begin shooting with?
Keith: I was 18 at the time when I started photographing my friends skateboarding and then the mountains [in Colorado], which are two very different topics: one is working in urban cities and shooting pictures of skateboarding while the other is hanging out on the mountains, where it’s quiet, waiting for wildlife and beautiful light to happen.
Slowly, the two started to merge. I started shooting rock climbing, which is sort of a mix between action and outdoors, and then started working with magazines. That eventually led into working with bigger magazines, like Outside and National Geographic Adventure, which then turned into working with the big parent magazine, National Geographic. That was all over the course of many years … this is the abridged version of the story.
Keith climbed up high to capture Matt Segal dangling on a rope off of Moon Hill Arch, in Yangshou, China | Image Source
ub-cool: It’s clear from your photos that you often take risks to get that perfect shot, like climbing mountains or swimming with sharks. Are you an adrenaline junkie?
Keith: I would say I am addicted to photography more than I am addicted to adrenaline.
“With my job, I could be hanging off of a 3000-foot cliff taking pictures and, most of the time, I forget that I’m so high off the ground, or the fact that I’m hanging on one rope… all that type of stuff just gets blocked out when you’re living inside your camera.”
ub-cool: Can you tell us about some of the challenging and dangerous photoshoots you’ve been on?
Keith: Most of the work I do is in the outdoor adventure space so many of the jobs present their own dangers. I’ve done a lot of mountain expeditions to really far remote places. Most of my trips are not alpinism, rather they are technical rock climbs which are, generally speaking, much harder.
A playful Leopard Seal in Antarctica heading straight for Keith’s camera | Image Source
A couple years ago, I did a one-month expedition in the 6000-7000 meter high Tian Shan mountain range, on the China-Kyrgyzstan border, in Western China, which was beautiful but also very dangerous with lots of rock fall and avalanches. On that trip, I got really sick from the food. Then, I did a 45-day expedition to Antarctica’s Queen Maude Land – that was extremely hard and intense.
On location in the Bahamas photographing Lemon Sharks | Image Source
I’ve had crazy encounters with wildlife like with alligators and lions… and I’ve also done shark shoots where you’re diving in the water with thirty sharks at a time in the Bahamas. But, I work with experts and rely heavily on their knowledge to keep me safe when we are in certain spaces.
The truth is that this job is simply getting on location to get the pictures you need to take.
Keith showing off a black eye he received from rock fall in Greenland (Sept 2017) | Image Source
ub-cool: How many countries have you visited so far?
Keith: I’m up to 37 now, which is not many because there are about 196 countries – I have a long way to go!
ub-cool: Do you have any favourite places that you’d love to return to?
Keith: I have many. South Africa is one of my favorite countries to visit because there is so much to do down there… incredible wildlife safaris… crashing waves, surfing, and amazing rock climbing. I also really love Chile because it’s another country that’s stunning.
Matanzas Beach in Chile | Image Source
I love Greenland because of the wildlife you get in the Arctic and the ruggedness of the mountains – it’s very untouched. It’s so hard to get to locations in Greenland that when you get there, it’s one of the few places you can go where no one’s ever been. The Arctic is great too because of the wildlife, the waterfalls bombing off of mountains, the icebergs floating through the ocean – it’s so unbelievably cool and visual. Last, but not least, I really love Antarctica with its beautiful wildlife – it has a place in my heart.
A wonderful photograph Keith shot of a polar bear on floating ice in Greenland earlier this year | Image Source
ub-cool: After spending so much time outdoors, how does it feel to return to the city? Do you love city life or are you itching to return to the great outdoors?
Keith: It’s funny because after a couple of weeks being home in an urban environment, I start craving the outdoors. You become addicted to the isolation and the fact that something beautiful is always happening in front of your eyes. It’s this part of nature that I start to crave to a point that I almost need it.
“I’ve been doing this now for almost over 20 years and, in that time, the addiction has only gotten stronger – that need to go look for things to take pictures of or those experiences to go have.”
ub-cool: So, you’re addicted to the outdoor lifestyle?
Keith: Very much so – it gets worse with every year!
Addicted to the outdoors and photography, Keith Ladzinski captured this shot in Boven, Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa | Image Source
ub-cool: You’re known for your special lighting techniques – could you explain these techniques for our non-photography-savvy readers?
Keith: My friend, Dave Black, is a master of lighting and he has a great quote: “light is the greatest influence to a photograph.”
I use remote strobes, off-camera lighting, with the goal of drawing people in with beautiful shadows, texture, and colour. When you add light, you’re adding color and texture to the photo – therefore, the position of your light’s source is important. I love trying to put the light in the right place so I can give more emphasis to the photo I am trying to shoot and actually draw the viewer’s eye to a specific place. And, if you use less light, you can also shadow out places that are not important in the photograph – light is where emphasis lives. Lighting is what makes things beautiful.
Using lighting to draw your eye to the focus of the photo, Keith Ladzysnki photographed this rock climber in Clear Creek Canyon in 2005 | Image Source
ub-cool: Have you ever thought about leaving photography behind for a new career?
Keith: I have never even thought about it.
“However, I have thought about how horrible it would be if I didn’t have photography in my life – photography is therapeutic for me. My mind is the quietest and I feel most relaxed when I am with my camera. That’s part of the addiction – the quietness. Everything just shuts down when you’re focusing on taking pictures and that’s what I love about it more than anything.”
ub-cool: So photography is your form of meditation?
Keith: It really is – it’s when all of my worries in life are gone.
ub-cool: You have been recognized with many awards over the years – of them, is there one that is closest to your heart?
Keith: Yes. I won a Maggie Award back in 2013 for Best Single Editorial Photograph of a photo I published in Sierra Magazine. This award meant a lot to me because it was completely unexpected – I didn’t even realize I was nominated for it… until I got the phone call and was like, “Whoa!”
Award-winning photo by Keith Ladzinski of Joe Kinder climbing in Utah’s Hurricave | Maggie Awards 2013 | Image Source: Sierra Magazine
ub-cool: You are the co-owner of the movie production company, 3 Strings Production – what type of subject matter do you film?
Keith: We shoot a lot of extreme activities like base jumping, wing suit flying, rock climbing, ice climbing, and also a lot of natural history stuff with sharks and other wildlife.
ub-cool: How did you transition into film?
Keith: The production company started in 2011 because a lot of my commercial clients started requesting that I shoot video too. At the time, I had no interest in being a cinematographer but magazines were saying the new photographer would often need to be a director… it was scary because I started thinking:
“If I don’t keep up with [film], I might become obsolete – I might be a dinosaur.”
So, I started learning about video and audio – the methodology is very different from that of photography… and, slowly, I fell in love with it. Then, I landed a job with Adidas for which I partnered with my friend, Andy Mann, who had two years of experience in film at the time. Together, we unexpectedly ended up making a very successful film, “Pure Imagination”, which went viral and ended up on Oprah’s show; the film was about a 17-year old rock climber who climbed the hardest route in America.
After that, Andy and I banded together and we started a production company. Now, seven years later, the company’s still going strong and we’re the best of friends – we get to hang out and work together.
Keith Ladzinski and Andy Mann filming their friend kayaking in Greenland | Image Source
ub-cool: What advice would you offer our readers to inspire them to go on extraordinary journeys?
Keith: There is an old expression, “travel broadens the mind” – I really feel it is true. Visiting a place in person is ten times more impactful than seeing a picture of it online. Going and having experiences of your own is the most enriching thing I believe people can do in life.
“I would encourage everybody to get off the couch, go travel somewhere, and see something new that is completely outside of your day-to-day comfort because it will leave a true impression in your mind.”
You can follow Keith’s journey on Instagram @ladzinski and Facebook.
Keith’s Next Trip: 21-Day Expedition to Chile and Bolivia (Nov 2nd – 22nd, 2017)
Photos: Thank you Keith for allowing us to use your photos!
Feature Photo: Thank you Arc’teryx | Image Source
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